From Heritage New Zealand, Spring 2007
by Neville Peat
A pioneer of the conservation movement began his work in splendid isolation
Pigeon Island, Dusky Sound. The small headland, centre right is where Richard Henry built his ranger station. The gravel beach to the left of the headland was where he built a slipway and boatshed.
Fittingly, the site where New Zealand’s hands-on wildlife conservation work began, Fiordland’s fabled Dusky Sound, is as far as you can get from roads, tracks and other built amenities anywhere on the mainland. The first government-funded base used by a wildlife ranger in New Zealand was on Pigeon Island, a low-lying island adjacent to mountainous Resolution Island, which dominates the northern side of Dusky Sound. Here, Richard Henry built a house, store, boatshed and slipway.
He also built a legacy from working with the flightless birds of Fiordland, especially kiwi and kakapo. He is remembered by today’s ornithologists and nature conservationists as the man who pioneered the transfer of endangered birds from predator-prone mainland habitats to island sanctuaries.
In 1894, Henry was appointed curator and caretaker of Resolution Island, which had been set aside as a flora and fauna reserve in 1891 – New Zealand’s first such reserve. It would be a further 10 years before the first moves were made to set up Fiordland National Park.
In July 1894, aged 49, Henry arrived at Dusky Sound aboard the government steamer Hinemoa. The vessel made quarterly visits to this remote coastline to service the lighthouse at Puysegur Point (1879) and the gold-mining and sawmilling communities at Preservation Inlet. When Henry arrived, the only inhabitant of Dusky was an ageing minerals prospector, William Docherty, who had a house further up the fiord and had spent many years on his own in Fiordland.
Before this assignment, Henry worked as a shepherd, farmhand and fix-it man in the Te Anau area. He was a competent carpenter. These attributes, in addition to an intense interest in New Zealand birds, bush experience and a talent for self-sufficiency, made him a worthy candidate for the ranger’s position.
His job came with a £123 annual salary, materials for a modest house, store, boatshed and slipway, and a five-metre sailing dinghy. He had an assistant for some of the time, whom he paid out of his salary.
On the north side of Pigeon Island, in the lee of the prevailing sou’west winds, Henry selected a headland between two small bays as his base. The three-room weatherboard house, with red-brick chimney and corrugated-iron roof, was built on tall piles to try to keep it from being infested by rats. He cleared enough of the forest to be able to see the bays on either side and the surrounding mountains.
The weather made an impression on him immediately – “wet and tempestuous,” he wrote in his diary. He recorded 200 rain days a year.
In his sailing dinghy, which he named Putangitangi after the paradise shelduck, he travelled to most parts of Dusky, the longest of the fiords. Supper Cove, at its head, is 44 kilometres from the fiord entrance.
In 1899, five years after his arrival, he gained a plate-glass camera, the gift of a Dunedin supporter, Edward Melland. Henry took some of the earliest photographs of New Zealand birds. He developed them at Pigeon Island in a darkroom he built himself.
His descriptions of kakapo behaviour, including the booming of the males “like distant thunder”, were invaluable to conservationists trying to save the species in the late 20th century. Eight kakapo captured by him were sent to Little Barrier Island in 1903.
During his 14 years at Dusky Sound, he and his assistant, with the help of a specially trained dog, transferred hundreds of kiwi and kakapo – 700 birds in the first six years – to Resolution Island and other islands in Dusky Sound. He built an enclosure of ponga stems, 3.5 metres by 3 metres, a few metres from the house to hold birds awaiting transfer to Resolution Island.
His hopes of safe space for kiwi and kakapo, however, were dashed in August 1900, when he saw an introduced mustelid, probably a weasel, on Resolution Island. The discovery was heartbreaking for Henry. He tendered his resignation, but his bosses in Wellington refused to accept it, and he stayed on at Dusky until 1908. The records of his work – his techniques and bird observations – remain of considerable value to wildlife rangers.
After three years as the Kapiti Island conservator, Henry retired to Katikati, then Helensville. He had no friends or relatives to look after him when he became ill and confused, and he died at Avondale Mental Hospital on 13 November 1929 at the age of 76. The local postmaster was the only person to attend his funeral.
The Pigeon Island site is regarded today as the birthplace of Government fauna conservation in New Zealand, and the site of one of the earliest wildlife ranger stations in the world, although there are no signs or information panels attesting to the significance. A humble man, Richard Henry would have approved.
The forest has grown over the house site, an area about six metres square. The brick chimney, on concrete foundations, and a few worn-down piles are all that remain. Old photographic plates and bric-a-brac, including broken bottles, are piled up on the base of the chimney.
Nearer the landing place, he built a store, and, by the pebble beach on the eastern side of the small peninsula, there was the boatshed. His sailing dinghy was replaced after a few years by a motor boat, a concession to his age and the difficulty of the work.
From the pebbly landing place, the walk up to the house site takes just a minute or so. For anyone interested in the history of nature conservation in New Zealand, this is hallowed ground, made all the more special by its remoteness. A few eco-tourism ventures offer trips to Dusky, including Pigeon Island, from Doubtful Sound (road access via Lake Manapouri) or Preservation Inlet (helicopter transfer from Te Anau). The Milford Wanderer (Real Journeys) and Breaksea Girl (Fiordland Ecological Holidays) are among the vessels taking visitors to Dusky Sound.
I have had the good fortune to be able to visit Dusky once a year for the past seven years as study leader aboard a chartered American expedition ship, Clipper Odyssey. The 80 to 100 Americans on these study tours are invariably struck not only by the awesome nature of Fiordland but also by the heritage value.
Henry’s Pigeon Island base is designated an Historic Site of International Importance by the Department of Conservation and is actively managed. There is only one other “international” site in Fiordland among the 20 actively managed by DOC, Astronomer Point, on the south side of Dusky Sound, where James Cook’s Resolution expedition spent five weeks recovering from a long voyage from Cape Town via the Southern Ocean.